Introduction: Over the past several months, multiple scandals have rocked the publishing industry. Presses were exposed for failing to pay authors. Authors were exposed as sexual predators. Others attempted to defend those authors, and harassed the victims. Issues have affected writer organizations, publishers, authors, reviewers, booksellers, and readers. I wrote this article because healing for the people affected is contingent upon sincere efforts to atone for wrong behavior. Sweeping issues aside doesn’t solve them. Dismissing the seriousness of the behavior won’t win back reviewers and readers talking about leaving their genre communities. Healing that doesn’t involve the total expulsion of offenders from the community at large can only happen if offenders genuinely attempt to answer for their actions. Many apologies that have been issued have been hollow or ineffective, and only served to compound the pain victims feel.
This is a guide for those who are serious about restoring their image and correcting their mistakes. – Sandra Ruttan
This article first appeared in 2020 at Sci-Fi & Scary. It does not address recent issues in the crime fiction or horror communities.
A serious incident has compromised you or your business’s reputation. It isn’t something minor, like someone subtweeting you because they disagree with your opinion. It’s something that compromises the integrity of the industry or the personal safety of people involved. Maybe one of your authors doxxed a reviewer who gave them a tepid review. Perhaps one of your reviewers was exposed for giving books by authors they don’t like negative reviews without reading the works. Maybe one of your authors has been sexually harassing people. Perhaps a writer revealed you haven’t paid them. Maybe you lied to your genre’s community to secure their support, and your lie has been exposed.
The truth has come out. People are expressing their disappointment and demanding answers while you scramble to assess the situation.
You find yourself with one critical question: what do I do now?
Whether you were responsible for the misconduct yourself or share responsibility by association, following this blueprint can help you respond professionally and prevent missteps that could further compromise your reputation. The first phase involves research. The second phase involves accountability. The third stage involves action.
1. Assess The Situation
First, determine who has been hurt, how they’ve been hurt, and why they’ve been hurt. In some cases, it may be obvious, but there may be collateral damage that’s harder to identify. For example, let’s say you relayed misinformation about someone that caused them to lose their job. If that person was a reviewer and had completed several reviews that were about to be published, the authors featured in those reviews may also suffer as a result of the misinformation. If it was a paid position, the person may have suffered financial repercussions that affected their whole family. Having a sense of the scope of the damage will be crucial in subsequent steps because your actions should reflect the extent of the damage.
You also need to determine who is responsible for the damage and try to determine why. This information will also be crucial as you work to effective address the situation.
Remember: there is nothing wrong with asking questions. If you need to talk to victims, be mindful of their situation. Make sure your attempts to add to your understanding of the situation do not appear doubtful or judgmental. If you seem to have a fixed opinion from the start, victims may not be willing to talk to you. Be open-minded and avoid any statements that could be construed as criticism for how the victim has handled the situation.
2. Know Your Role
Clearly identify your role in the incident and how any of your actions may have contributed to the situation. You cannot initiate genuine corrective measures if you do not acknowledge any responsibility you have. You may be responsible for conscious actions, such as spreading a lie. You may be responsible for passive actions, such as not stepping forward to share the truth when you become aware of a lie that’s being spread around.
3. Review Your Conduct Guidelines
Whether you, one of your authors, or one of your team members is responsible for the problematic behavior, you need to know what grounds you have to discipline them. If they have a contract, review the terms and expectations. Check your policies. If you are dealing with an issue with an author, there may be legal ramifications to consider. It is important you understand your rights and responsibilities before addressing the situation so you don’t initiate a process you can’t complete.
4. Identify Appropriate Disciplinary Measures
The information you gathered in steps 1 through 3 will help you identify appropriate disciplinary measures. Let’s use a non-publishing family example. Let’s say your child used their social media account to bully a classmate. Perhaps appropriate consequences would include making them write a public apology and taking away their electronic devices for a period of time, or even shutting their accounts down.
However, if your child stole an iPhone and a hundred dollars from a teacher’s purse at school, you may require them to replace the stolen items and work to earn the money to pay the full cost themselves.
Although you must identify appropriate disciplinary measures before you will be ready for accountability, you must also bear in mind that new information may come to light that will prompt you to adjust the disciplinary measures. Reaching this stage once does not guarantee you will not need to repeat the process if more victims come forward or more information is shared. This is why it is important to try to thoroughly assess the extent of the damage from the start, and this may mean talking to those who have been hurt.
It may also mean giving them time and space to respond.
Once you have a disciplinary plan in place, you are ready for public accountability. This is more than apologizing. An apology alone will usually fail to resolve the situation in a meaningful, responsible way. It may also fail to prevent the situation from recurring.
Answer Your Stakeholders
Many companies and organizations have boards to answer to. Once an issue occurs, leadership must scramble to complete the research required to progress. In some cases, discipline may have been initiated prior to answering to stakeholders, but it can be a good idea to have a discipline strategy ready and answer your stakeholders first.
- Who are your stakeholders?
Your stakeholders are anyone who is doing business with you in any capacity or anyone you are asking for support from. For example, if you are hoping for widespread industry support, you may need to listen to the industry as a whole. For small presses who are asking for social media communities and review sites to support their work, you may need to make yourself available to all of them to restore confidence. As a reviewer and author, I would be reluctant to take a review copy from someone who doxxed reviewers. Without being assured appropriate steps had been taken to protect reviewers from that behavior in the future, I would probably avoid those responsible.
- How do you answer to them?
If you need to answer to the community at large, you can use social media to do so. If you’re mainly active on Twitter, it may mean posting a thread and tagging the appropriate community and staying on social media to answer all relevant questions. You may need to add to your thread and state when you will return to answer more questions if the process is lengthy. However, if you make a statement on social media about your business following a serious incident, you should expect people to have questions and opinions, and you should be prepared to answer those questions as soon as possible. If you are not prepared to answer legitimate questions, people may be reluctant to trust your business or support you.
- How long does this take?
It could take a few hours or it could take months. If your business has been rocked by a serious scandal, it’s possible some people may take a break from social media and may catch up on the issue when they return. You can expect questions to be ongoing. If more people ask questions early on, it’s more likely people who become aware of the discussion later will see the answers and be satisfied. Ideally, you will announce you will be making a statement and available for questions in advance and give people time to be present when you make your statement. This is an effective way of ensuring engagement at the time. Whether you need to spend three or six hours on Twitter answering questions that day, you may be able to prevent yourself from needing to answer more questions weeks later.
Remember the law of fragmentation. What you start out doing may not be enough. You may need to take additional measures due to new revelations, or because the people you need to support your business are not satisfied. Answering stakeholders before you take corrective measures can be one way to avoid this. You will also expedite the process of atonement if you take appropriate action from the start.
What do you need to say?
- Acknowledge the problem.
Do not invalidate bullying or harassment by saying it could have been worse. Treat the matter seriously. If you do not, nothing else you say will convince stakeholders you are sincere.
- Acknowledge what you did wrong.
Demonstrate self-evaluation and self-awareness. An example of a failure to do this comes from the ITW situation. A member of the ITW relayed concerns about another member who was under investigation by the police for sexual assault. The ITW refused to take action because the incident did not occur at an event they held. They also asked witnesses and the victim to stay silent. Eventually, it prompted the witnesses and victim to share their concerns about the ITW’s failure to act. The crime fiction community at large expressed strong opinions. Multiple authors withdrew their books from consideration for the upcoming ITW awards. Authors canceled their ITW memberships.
As a result, most people on the ITW board stepped down. When they did, they did not talk about failing to protect victims. They did not talk about letting their membership down. The statement:
“We are honored to have played a role in the success of ITW as a source of support and learning for authors, readers and publishers. For many of us, it has been a labor of love from the first days this community came together 16 years ago. The last several weeks have been a painful time for our community. We have decided to leave the Board with the hopes that it will foster some healing among our members and make way for new leadership that can build a stronger ITW community. This only works if the Board has the trust of the membership, and we believe our stepping away from the Board is the best way to achieve that.”
This is a passive way of saying that they were being forced to resign because of how others felt, without taking any responsibility for what they had and had not done.
If your apology infers you’re right, infers the victim(s) had responsibility, or fails to acknowledge the harm done, you will not convince people it’s sincere. And if you issue a statement that people don’t believe is sincere, it will do more harm than good.
- Apologize to those who were hurt.
Offer a genuine, heartfelt, unconditional apology. No buts. No caveats. No excuses.
- Take responsibility for your actions.
Holding yourself accountable is paramount, because you need to take actions to restore stakeholder confidence. People will not be convinced you are capable of doing this effectively if you do not show you are capable of self-evaluation. Publicist Beverly Bambury says, “This is one of the hardest parts for most people. Our natural instinct is to be defensive, to minimize or to deflect. A proper handling of a situation calls for humility and it can be one of the hardest things someone has ever done. But worth it for everyone involved.”
- Ensure the safety of victims.
If you do not ensure the safety of victims with your statements or your actions, you are compounding the original damage. This can traumatize victims, and it can keep others from trusting you.
- Explain the steps you took (during the research stage) to inform yourself.
The more transparent you are, the more effective this process will be. If people feel you rushed to hasty decisions, they may not believe you took the matter seriously or feel you have not demonstrated effective leadership with your attempts to resolve the situation.
- Explain the disciplinary actions your business will take.
People have a right to answers. If people are upset because one of your authors was doxxing reviewers or sexually harassing people, people are going to want to know if you plan to continue publishing them. They are going to want to know what measures you put in place to prevent this from happening again. And they will expect those measures to be sufficient to address the real problem.
What shouldn’t you do?
- Do not pressure victims to take actions or communicate with people who have harassed or bullied them.
Victims should be allowed time and space to heal. Your need for their forgiveness is about you, not them, and it may compound their trauma if you pressure them to communicate with you or their abuser.
- Ask others to apologize to you.
Your apology should not be dependent upon the actions of others. This is about you demonstrating you understand how serious the situation is and that you understand your role in the misconduct. Nothing else. Let others answer for themselves. If you want to genuinely repair the damage, you will answer for yourself no matter what others do.
- Portray yourself as a victim.
You may be a victim as well, but as someone with a business who was willingly or unwillingly a participant in the problem, the focus here is on taking responsibility for your role.
- Mitigate your responsibility by blaming others.
Blame isn’t like pie. It isn’t something we carve into slices and measure out. You can be 100% responsible, and another party may also be 100% responsible. It doesn’t matter. You need to take complete responsibility for your part in the situation. You can say you can only address what you are responsible for, but you should not say, “It’s not my fault so-and-so did x, y and z.” That’s shifting the blame, and the savvy people sitting back quietly watching and assessing will see it for what it is, and they will not treat any apology from you seriously. Bambury adds this, “Defensiveness comes out so often in people and ruins their chances of anyone taking them seriously or viewing their apology as genuine. It doesn’t matter what anyone else did. You are apologizing for what you did and focusing on others is a bad move.”
- Do not be passively receptive.
If you do not understand how victims of sexual assault and harassment may respond to the situation, use Google. Do not expect others to explain it to you. Before you ever weigh in on how victims should respond, inform yourself. If you need to add another step to the research phase to ensure you understand why the offensive behavior is so serious or how victims may respond, then do so. If you show you don’t understand the issue, any attempt to show you’re accountable for your actions will ultimately fail.
- Tell people it’s over.
Victims do not process trauma on your timetable. If you declare a subject is over or off limits, you are dismissing the extent of the damage done. This is not something people who are allies do.
Remember: questions are an opening and an opportunity. If people aren’t asking questions they either don’t care about what you have to say or have already firmly reached a decision about your business. Welcome questions. Welcome everyone willing to have a dialogue with you, even if those questions are difficult.
When sexual assault and harassment allegations started to surface months ago, one author simply retweeted an apology they issued a few years ago. That shows a complete lack of self-awareness. It shows they have not meaningfully changed since the last time they were caught. It’s impersonal and insulting to victims, as though what applied in one situation could be completely appropriate for another situation years later. He couldn’t even be bothered to address his specific actions and victims with a new statements, and it’s hardly surprising there was strong backlash to his actions.
One final note about apologies. Do not apologize on behalf of others. Do not issue statements for them or encourage people to accept their apologies. You can retweet someone’s apology, but never ever post it for them. They need to make an effort and do the work themselves or it’s meaningless.
1. Have conduct guidelines
If you did not have measures in place to prevent the behavior, introduce policies that will prevent future incidents from occurring. You may also clearly identify the corrective measures that will be taken in the event of future incidents.
All measures should emphasize ensuring the safety of victims and preventing future victimization.
2. Demonstrate you’ve changed
This may take a long time, and it may be difficult. One of the ways to facilitate this is to take steps related to the actions to show corrective behavior. For example, if you had an author who was sexually harassing people, you can donate to organizations that support victims of harassment. Post receipts of your donations as confirmation. Don’t expect people to just take your word for it. You can be a champion for victims by retweeting fundraising and informative posts from organizations that work with victims.
3. Be patient and persistent
It may take some people months, or even years, before they’re ready to engage with you. That’s okay. Remember, victims are not under any obligation to work on anyone’s timeline. It doesn’t matter how much money you donate or how many posts you retweet. You also can’t demonstrate meaningful change by making a donation or two and then engage in suspect behavior again.
4. Understand People Are Allowed to Feel How They Feel
This has been stated and restated, but it can’t be restated enough. Some people may need longer than others to process what happened. You may not have any sense of other trauma that has resurfaced due to your actions or the actions of others. There is no timetable for healing. While you may want people to forgive or, at the very least, not disapprove of your statements and future business plans, you should not put any pressure on anyone to offer you support or criticize people who still need time.
Doing so shows you have failed to understand the gravity of the situation. Part of the reason I continue to revisit this is because it is prevalent. If you are telling victims they must forgive, or telling people that this topic is “done” and you’re sick of talking about it, you aren’t an ally to victims and you aren’t engaging in actions that show you’re accountable.
Apologies must be sincere. People can sense when they aren’t. If you give anyone reason to doubt your sincerity they will be unlikely to support you moving forward. If you issue an apology that is a lie, you will expose yourself sooner or later, because your actions will not match your words. When this happens, people will feel betrayed, and it will undo any damage control you engaged in after the original incident. If you’re insincere with your first apology, you will have to issue another apology, and it will be harder to satisfy stakeholders. You can avoid this issue by being genuine from the start. “I can’t tell you how important it is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and humble in this process,” says Bambury. “Putting your ego aside is against a lot of our human instincts, but those instincts do not serve you well in a public relations apology situation.”
Victims didn’t ask to be victimized. Other people took deliberate actions that were harmful. It is never up to victims to help restore your image, demonstrate forgiveness, or support your business. Attempts to stifle discussion and tell people how to feel or what to do are attempts to control the situation. You may get lucky, and have enough people give you the benefit of the doubt for a time, but subsequent problematic behavior will prompt people to reflect on this situation, and some of those people will withdraw their support as a result. If you are accountable and take meaningful, sincere actions that center on protecting victims, this won’t be an issue, and it’s more likely you’ll be able to restore your image or the image of your business.